Fifteen

“That girl knew exactly what she was doing.”

I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing those words. This week they came from so-called journalist Katie Hopkins who has decided to feel all sorry for footballer Adam Johnson, as he is imprisoned for sexual activity with a 15-year-old. Ever the victim-blamer, she describes the girl as “a hormonal teen stalking someone famous for attention, desperate for a chance to have something her friends do not.”

I think back to when I was fifteen and developing major crushes on older, unattainable men wherever I went. I never acted on them, but I think the targets of my devotion must have been only too aware that there was a young girl mooning around after them, hanging on their every word.

I remember being in a pantomime with ‘Brian’, who played Buttons in Snow White. (I know… Buttons appears in Cinderella but this was a low-budget thing in the north-west). Brian must have been in his twenties when he had me waiting to catch his eye at every turn. Even while I was dressed as a dwarf and saying, “Oh you ARE lovely, Snow White!” – my only line in the whole thing (I got paid £10 – my first pay check, spent on tukka boots in Top Shop).

But Brian was kind. He dropped his girlfriend into the conversation now and then, just to make sure I was aware, and continued to be nice and brotherly to me. He didn’t take advantage of me and made me feel comfortable around him. I loved Brian.

This happened a few times during those years. I, like many teenage girls, was testing out my new-found sexuality and powers of attraction. I didn’t quite know what would happen, and I was a little bit scared. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I relied on the adult men I was testing it out on to be responsible and to not take advantage. I remember a guy called Paul taking a kind and brotherly stance with me and how I found it intensely annoying that he didn’t ‘see’ me. But oh boy, he definitely saw me. And he acted like every responsible adult should.

Because to my mind, you can say all you like about Adam Johnson’s victim but when all is said and done, he is the adult and she is the child. She may have looked and acted like a sexually experienced young woman, but she was probably in wild ‘testing’ mode and couldn’t believe that the object of her crush was reciprocating. It was up to him to stop the 834 WhatsApp messages or not even start them in the first place. It was up to him not to pick her up in his car. Up to him to stop the sexting. Up. To. Him.

There are some men who can’t believe it when a younger woman or teenager appears to find them attractive. They think they are singled out for their unique animal magnetism, seemingly unaware that young women test out their sexuality like this all the time. We look to see who’s looking, and find these guys staring back. I remember going on weekend day trips with my family as a teenager and without fail, the guys staring back at me in the places we visited were the dads, not the sons I was scanning the room for. It was like that for a very long time until the roles switched, and I found the sons of the guys I was checking out staring back at me. Weird, that.

At fifteen, I mostly had crushes on guys in bands, and I now realise how safe that kind of crushing was, with only a Patches magazine poster to moon over in my bedroom. Coming into contact with real-life men was something that presented more challenges. I shudder to think what trouble I might have got into now, with the convenience of social media and smartphones.

I thank my lucky stars that the guys I encountered at fifteen were so kind to me. Brian, lovely Brian, with your mullet hairdo. I salute you for being a responsible adult with a clear-eyed perception of the situation I put you into.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Go With The Flow

I’m going to talk about periods. If you’re rolling your eyes right now then maybe click or look away before I go any further.

*gives it a few seconds*

Periods are big news at the moment – firstly we had the woman who posted a picture of herself on Instagram in which you could clearly see a patch of blood. Instagram took the picture down and she reposted it. They took it down again, but later apologised for their ‘mistake’ and reinstated it. As Jessica Valenti pointed out, Instagram are only too happy to showcase bikini selfies but have banned breastfeeding shots. Similarly, women can be nearly naked, but if they dare to have body hair, they have to go.

Then just last week we had Donald Trump criticising Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, saying on CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes … Blood coming out of her wherever.” It’s not new to have a man accuse a confident, vocal woman of being subject to ‘that time of the month’, especially if she’s questioning his motives, but it’s not something you usually hear from a man running for the US presidency. That comment probably lost him the race.

And yesterday we had the news that Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon in April while she had her period, but decided to run tampon-free in support of women in countries who have no access to sanitary protection. Interestingly, the incident wasn’t reported by anyone there at the time – maybe they thought she’d simply had a ‘mishap’.

And oh, the fear of that mishap. The leak. I remember the very real fear that it would happen at school. I started my periods while still at primary school and in the beginning, had to wear things (we called them ‘things’ in our house because the words ‘sanitary towels’ were just to awful to say out loud) that resembled single-sized duvets between my legs all day.

I remember my mother describing the onset of my periods as ‘something that happens to all women, even the Virgin Mary’. It wasn’t exactly a biology lesson but I was only nine and I was in a Catholic school. I remember my sister reaching her arm out of her bed to shake my hand: “Welcome to the club,” she said.

From being dropped off at school in the morning to going home at night I worried about leaking. If I sat down too long during lessons the worry would mean I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was how I could subtly spin my skirt around when I finally stood up just to check the back. At secondary school, my friends and I had a silent agreement that we’d check each other during those times. “Am I ok at the back?” I’d whisper through unmoving lips. They’d nod. I never leaked there, but I did in ballet class once, whilst wearing a light-blue leotard. I nearly died of shame when I realised later.

Managing this situation takes up a lot of time in women’s lives. If you’re a man, you won’t notice it because we are so practised at hiding it. If we think we might be in ‘danger’, we engineer a trip to the toilet; we stuff tampons up our sleeves or even down our boots if we have to, because the very worst thing we could do is let someone know that we have our period, even other women.

We manage the pain with timely painkillers and work out if we can manage an exercise class without worry. Don’t get me started on PE lessons at school and the showers. The opportunities for shame there are legion.

The worry lessens as we get older as we get more adept at managing periods and knowing what our bodies will do, or can handle, especially as our monthly cycles tend to become more regular. But those early days are fraught with unexpected or phantom start days, sudden rushes of ‘flow’ and not being near any facilities or painkillers for hours.

We even get up during the night to change our protection as eight hours is way too long to wait. We regularly ruin underwear if we don’t, which is why we have special ‘period pants’ that we don’t mind losing.

And then there are holidays. The all-important timing issue. Periods can be so erratic that you can change your holiday dates and still have to contend with the discomfort and inconvenience while you’re away. To a certain extent you can be that girl on a yacht in a Bodyform advert, but the reality is, her smile belies her ‘When will we reach a proper toilet so I can check my situation? Will this tampon last for a whole round-island trip? Did I make a mistake wearing white shorts?’ questions.

And finally, sex. There is nothing more frustrating than being ‘out of action’. Yes, there are some men who don’t mind, but there are even fewer women who think the same way (although maybe I’m wrong). Yes, there are other things you can do for entertainment, but it does rather take the shine off.

It is rather astonishing that something that affects all biological women is so gloriously taboo. The lengths we all go to avoid saying the actual word or admit that it’s happening are incredible. I’m still embarrassed buying tampons in Boots for god’s sake.

So I’m pleased that periods are finally in the news. It’s about time. At least this is blood spilt without harming anyone.

Much.

——————

Great piece on the Trump moment: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/10/menstruation-revolution-donald-trump-periods-stigma

Over-baring

Since I’ve got back from the Middle East, I’ve been struggling a bit over what to say about the current slew of female celebrities getting their kit off, Because They Can, in various publications. I rather enjoyed being in a culture where both men and women cover up out of respect for each other, and started to think a lot about why we are so hellbent in the west on getting so much of our flesh out in public.

I’ve already said what I think about ‘The Fappening’, and 4Chan’s privacy violation against female celebrities, in my blog post In Support of J-Law. Everyone has the right to take nude pictures of themselves and a right to keep them private. But in the last fortnight, we’ve had two women (weirdly both of them with the initials KK), both at massively opposing ends of the bodily spectrum, determined to bare all in the name of womanhood and freedom of self-expression.

Why?

Firstly Keira Knightley appeared in Interview magazine, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, in a series of images in which her body remains unmanipulated by the media. No photoshop, no cleavage enhancement, just as she is. Then Kim Kardashian appeared in Paper magazine, in a series of oiled-up nekkid shots that were intended to ‘break the internet’. Which they almost did, especially with the ensuing parody versions.

I happen to think that both of these women are remarkably beautiful in remarkably opposing ways. I think it’s a shame that Kim has clearly decided to enhance her best-known feature with surgery, but as someone with a pair of womanly hips and a small waist, I feel like this is a world where I can finally get them out with pride. And then Keira – seemingly no work done there, but she is campaigning against the ‘digital surgery’ that often makes her more acceptably womanly on film posters or in fashion features. One woman is flaunting her curves in extreme public displays, the other campaigning against the faking of curves whenever she is put on public display.

Interesting, isn’t it?

It’s also made me think about Lena Dunham, and her ‘I’ve got my body out and I don’t care if you don’t approve of it’ scenes in the TV series Girls. Her physically and digitally unenhanced body, seen in a number of nude scenes in the show, has attracted a raft of criticism from men and women alike, but that’s her point. Why should she look like Kim or Keira when she is really Lena? And who is dictating these rules?

In many ways I applaud all of these women for putting it out there – Kim looks gloriously (and uncharacteristically) happy in her images; Keira is poutingly defiant, and Lena acts care-free and unconscious of society’s disapproving gaze. Well done, you, I think, but then wondering why the hell they had to go that far to make their points. I’ve often laughed with guy-friends about their tick-box lists of female celebrity tits and ass – how the urge to see every hot woman naked in order to ‘tick them off the list’ became a thing that they did, consciously or unconsciously. It’s the infantile thing that Seth Macfarlane’s ill-advised Oscars song, We Saw Your Boobs, seemed to sum up perfectly, to the horror of the women in the audience.

Did these women bare all just to finally get the guys, and the media, off their backs? Once they’ve bared everything, does it mean they’ll be hounded less by the 4chans of this world, who’ve already moved on to the next starlet? What is it about the forced uncovering of women that makes female celebrities decide to do it themselves, so that they can control the outcome? Is it empowering or is it the ultimate sacrificial gift to the media that is hounding them already?

I realise I’m asking lots of questions here and not really answering them. I do think that there is great power in remaining clothed, in holding something back from the world (but only when that holding back is unenforced). I’m clearly part of a zeitgeist for women who are ‘baring all’ in terms of their experience (including Lena Dunham) but is that really the best thing to do? I have already said that part of the reason I am putting it all out there is because no one will be able to use anything against me in the future. There are no secrets for them to pounce on. Isn’t that what Kim, Keira and Lena are doing? All of us are owning our bodies and our lives but in the process we are letting everyone else have a piece of them too. It appears to be the domain of the modern woman. I’m all for having a voice that is heard, but are we saying too much?

It’s interesting that in the same period as the double KK bare-all, Nick Jonas, the erstwhile virginal member of the pop group the Jonas Brothers, did a Wahlberg-alike photoshoot for Flaunt magazine in his pants. The story registered as a medium-sized blip on the radar of various gay and women’s interest websites, and yeah, I had a look. He’s hot. But he’s one guy in a sea of a bajillion women doing this sort of shoot every day, for lads’ mags, for Page 3, for the latest ‘it’ magazine that promises them not to enhance their boobs and make nudity ‘arty’. We’ve moved on from Jonas already. Who cares if a guy takes his top off?

For women, holding back and wearing more might be the ultimate empowering thing to do with just a glimpse of a bared shoulder or ankle, but would you do that if you knew that your private bare-all photos made for your partner were likely to be posted online the very next day, rendering your peekaboo clothed pictures ridiculous? If you knew that the latest celeb magazine was going to show a range of high-definition images of you in a bikini on your holiday on its front page, and a close-up of your face without makeup, would you grin and bear it or rush out a series of naked, no makeup shots taken by a top photographer for a cool magazine?

I think I’d want to own my own images if I knew that these were the rules of the game, so I can’t blame the two KKs for doing what they’re doing. Kim K knows that her greatest social currency is her body and she is setting the bar higher and higher for how much she’ll show us, and how far she’ll go to enhance it. Many will say that they’re not interested in her antics, but I bet they have a good look before dismissing them.

As I write this piece, Gemma Collins, ‘star’ of reality TV show The Only Way is Essex, leaves the I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here jungle to a tidal wave of fat-shaming tweets. When the ‘bikini shower scene’ becomes a woman’s main social currency on TV, and she’s pitted against ex-model and lads’ mag favourite Melanie Sykes, I’d be out of there too.